Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the Roads of Cuba


1950's Chevrolet convertible in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba


Let’s start with Havana.  All have seen beautiful photos of the 1950’s cars, preserved  when  Fidel Castro’s revolution stopped time in 1959.  Havana’s close association with the United States meant almost all then existing cars were American brands.  Because of the U.S. embargo, import of new cars came to a halt as did car parts.  The latter was solved by ingenuity and determination.  As one  taxi driver told me,  in Cuba, “todo tiene valor” or everything has value.  Their cars were not repaired with genuine Chevrolet parts but somehow have continued to run.   

Not all cars have been maintained.
There were far more classic cars than I expected.    As I walked  a block on a fairly busy street in a tourist area, I counted 25 passing by or about half of the cars.  Called almendrones for their almond shape, many are used as taxis on a set route while nicer ones are individual taxis that cost a bit more than their Soviet taxi counterparts.   The famous photos are of those in pristine shape but many look better outside than inside.   These 50’s cars have been declared a national treasure and can be sold only to fellow Cubans.   American collectors may have a long wait to get their hands on these.


Soviet Lada used as a taxi.
This one looked nicer on the outside than the inside.
In the suburbs, the numbers of Eisenhower era cars diminish and dilapidated Soviet Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s appear.  Originally used to reward workers, these make up much of the used car stock.  Most looked rode hard and put up wet.   It was only in the wealthier Miramar suburb,  where the imposing Robocop shaped Russian Embassy stands with other embassies and ambassador’s homes,  that I saw a BMW, a couple of Mercedes and newer Japanese cars.  They are rare and notable.

On the highway, an array of cars, trucks, buses and horse-drawn carts make their way down an impressive set of highways.  To Cuba’s credit, the Central Highway of Cuba was originally built in the 1920s and extends 700 miles on four lanes linking the island east to west.  Tributaries now run off the main road to smaller towns.  Yet, the amount of traffic on these nice roads was minimal, an indication of how few Cubans own cars and how expensive gas is.  On a bus ride west into the Vinales province, I would occasionally wait minutes before seeing another car.   But ox drawn plows and old tractors with vertical exhaust pipes still dot the landscape, moving at the speed of yesteryear. 

Baby carriage in back of horse drawn cart
What was numerous on the roads were Cubans hitching a ride, lined up wherever the road widened.  It wasn’t important if a bus came first or an almondrone on a set route or an individual lending a hand, or even the classic horse drawn cart.  The latter was often a covered cart with benches down the side and an open back.  One woman lifted her baby stroller into the cart before she hopped in.  These are still in widespread use by passengers and farmers.



Taxi drivers outside Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
Taxis were plentiful and we found  their drivers a law abiding bunch.  All stopped (or at least slowed significantly) at railroad crossings.  Most seemed to stay close to the posted 60 mph speed limit on the highways.   All waited for traffic lights to change.   There was no passing on the hills that I’ve experienced in other Hispanic countries.  They were also chatty and wanted to share their experiences in Miami or tell of their family there. 

We got to know Raul, a retiree who drives a taxi for extra money.  His “taxi” carries no sign so negotiations were required for each trip.   Raul’s monthly retirement check is $10.   He still gets a food allowance and free health care but it’s hard to make ends meet.  He sported a 1957 Peugeot with torn seats, rear view mirror that fell regularly,  and shoulder belts drawn over the shoulder only when passing a policeman or a security check on the highway.  The car also stalled at most stops.  But we managed to twice get to San Pedro de la Norte, 30 miles east of Havana, and back.  We took on a hitchhiker at one point to help find an out of the way village with a small Episcopal church.  But we never felt in danger on any of our taxi rides and enjoyed visiting about their other job, their families, and even politics.


Bicycles used creatively to carry passengers
Santa Cruz del Norte, cuba
When the U.S. Embargo is lifted, Cuba’s snapshot in time will gradually fade.  More tourists will arrive.   Money will flow.  New cars will be imported.  Cubans will be able to purchase them.   What I do hope remains is the lesson learned from Cuba’s years of scarcity, a lesson our throw-away society could use – todo tiene valor.   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting to Cuba - 2014

Jose' Marti Airport in Cuba

As travelers, Americans have traditionally been well treated by other countries.  Most allow us to enter with a tourist visa obtained at the entry point – whether by land, air or sea.  Occasionally, a visa must be requested prior to arriving by sending passports to embassies for processing.  Because of where we entered, Cambodia, Argentina and Jordan demanded this procedure.  It is much harder for most of the world to travel to the United States, requiring months of petitioning and providing verified information.  Cuba is different.  Getting in is not a problem.  It’s returning to the United States that’s tricky.

On January 1, 1959, Fulgencio Bautista, the U.S. friendly dictator of Cuba, fled to Spain.  Fidel Castro’s army entered Havana and began the rule of Cuba that continues today.  Castro didn’t start as a communist but moved that way quickly when Russia offered financial support.  In response, the United States declared an embargo against the island.  No American companies could do business there with some small exceptions such as agriculture.  And Americans could no longer travel to the emerald island.  Actually, the rule allowed Americans to be in Cuba but they couldn’t spend any money – an impossibility that ensured termination of tourism. 

Over the years, rules have softened.  President Obama’s changes now allow those of Cuban descent to visit whenever they want.  Cuba has also released its citizens to travel wherever they want as long as the country accepts them.  Consequently, almost every person we met in Cuba had family in the United States and most had been to visit.

For the rest of us, there are two methods of visiting Cuba – one legal and one not.  Wouldn’t you know the illegal way is easier.   Simply fly to another country such as Mexico, Guatemala, or Canada,  buy your Cuban tourist visa at the airport and fly from there to Havana.  Ask the customs officer not to stamp your passport.  Have fun in Cuba.  Return to Mexico, Guatemala or Canada.  Reenter the United States and simply fail to disclose that you took a detour to Cuba.  Thousands of Americans do this every year.  Truthfully, the risk is low.  I could find only one notable case of an American being caught in the lie and having to pay a fine.

Uneasy with that approach?  Worried about your passport?  Then let’s look at the legal way which has been expanded significantly by the Obama administration.  Before, a license had to be obtained through Washington, a lengthy process.  Now, you must be able to prove upon reentry that you’ve qualified for one of the new methods.  These include visiting Cuba on a cultural tour.  People to People is doing a brisk business in this category as is National Geographic, Road Scholar and university alumni groups.   If you are conducting a study, you can come back in.   And if your church confirms you as the church’s representative in Cuba, you’re good.  We worked with our local Holy Cross Episcopal Church to meet that requirement and with the Episcopal Church in Cuba to obtain the Cuban religious visa.    
  
U.S. airlines cannot run regular flights to Cuba but charter flights are allowed out of several cities, including Miami.  These companies must be sure their passengers have the visa to enter Cuba and of equal importance, meet our requirements to reenter.  They also provide the health insurance required by Cuba.

 We used ABC Charter which is actually owned by American Airlines.  The plane had the bright new AA logo on its tail and its crew appeared to be seasoned.  Judging by their accents, most passengers on the Havana flight were Cuban, either returning home or visiting relatives.  Our seatmate was doing just that.  Upon return to Miami, two People to People tours filled much of the plane.  Leaving Havana at about the same time was a Jet Blue charter flight.  I think both American and Jet Blue are poised for the lifting of the embargo, although there’s no sign of change yet.


The details of our trip took eight months to confirm. Charter flights can’t be booked until two or three months out.  Email to the Episcopal Church in Havana was not always reliable.  Delays in getting a Cuban visa were notable.  Ours arrived 10 days before scheduled departure. But it did finally come together and we touched down on a beautiful September morning.  Customs was smooth and we saw Cuba for the first time.   

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Mount Rainier Beckons


View of Mt. Rainier National Park from Paradise Inn
With a son living in Olympia, Washington,  I’ve become familiar with the Queen of Washington’s  Cascade Mountains  – Mount Rainier.  Its Native American name of Mount Tacoma was shelved in 1792 when explorer George Vancouver named the mountain after his friend, Pete Rainier, a Rear-Admiral in the British Royal Navy.  Probably few of the two million visitors a year to the Mount Rainier National Park realize they’re climbing on a mountain dedicated to an officer who heartily fought against the United States in the Revolutionary War. 

Wildflowers on the moutain
Despite its British ties, Mount Rainier is beloved in her home state.  When the snow covered peaks appear in late afternoon, many citizens of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia pause to look her way in acknowledgment of her majesty. When our family set out to visit Mt. Rainier National Park, she was covered in clouds.  But since the huge volcano creates its own constantly changing weather patterns, we knew there was always the possibility of seeing the grande dame.




Dining Room in Paradise Inn
What makes Mt. Rainier unique is her 25 glaciers with 36 miles of packed ice - largest remnant of the Ice Age on one mountain in the world.  At 14,411 feet, it’s only the fifth highest peak in the United States but sports more snow than any of the others.  In fact, it’s one of the snowiest places in the world, getting an average annual snowfall of 56 feet. As we ate a late Sunday brunch in the dining room of  100 year old Paradise Inn, the view was of wildflowers, green meadows, and occasional 1,000 year old trees, reminiscent of Switzerland in the summer.  In the winter though, the same large windows would be blocked by deep snow. On a trail, a park ranger pointed out the volcano’s own 18 foot tall weather station that snow would cover in a few months.  

Paved trails in Mr. Rainier Park
Trails began near the Scoop Jackson Visitors Center, a huge gathering place for the many travelers that day.  The crowd reflected America’s welcoming arms, both for immigrants and visitors with a heavy emphasis on Asians.  I thought it a busy day but two employees shrugged and said it was average.  A surprising number of trails were paved – steep but paved.  These paths brought out the families with baby strollers and wheel chairs.  All wanted pictures taken in front of the waterfall, near the wildflowers, or with the big mountain in the background.   Strangers exchanged cameras to take the other’s family photo.  Still, the mountain top had not appeared beneath the clouds.  

Mt Rainier is a popular climbing site with about 1,000 annual attempts at the summit but only half successful.  Occasional deaths are inevitable.  Just in May, six experienced climbers died on the ascent.  Most hike to a cabin built for them, sleep a few hours, and leave about 3 a.m. to make the top before snow begins to melt.  I wondered how many were up there that very day. 
  
River emerging from cave in Misqually Glacier Remains


A second trail through well tended forest ended with a view of the leavings of Nisqually Glacier.  Bare grey rocks disguised the stream running through.  Much of the water appeared to be emerging from a large cave, one of many formed by the geothermal heat from the volcano.  Clouds were lifting but the mountain only teased us with an occasional shrouded peak at the summit. 






Mt. Rainier finally peaks out
The day was waning as we began our descent down the mountain’s side, glancing back often.  It was then that Mt. Rainier threw off enough of her wrap to reveal one of her famous three peaks.  We pulled off on a widened part of the road and were quickly followed by several cars.  They had seen it, too.  Picture taking began anew. 

There are warnings about visiting Mt. Rainier National Park.  It is an active volcano – the second most active in the Cascade Mountains after Mount St. Helens.  Thirty earthquakes a year occur beneath its beautiful veneer.  The last eruption was as recent as the end of the 19th century.  It is one of sixteen on the “Decade Volcano” list that identifies those of most concern in the world.  An eruption or even a steam flow from Mt. Rainier would cause much destruction in the surrounding heavily populated areas.  But still we go, by the millions, to get close to her, to feel her heartbeat, to experience her past.  In John Muir’s words, we go to gaze in awe at that “noble beacon of fire”.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tugboat Races in Olympia, Washington

One of the many tugboats at the Harbor Day Festival in Olympia, Washington

From chariots in the Roman Coliseum to the Indianapolis  500, racing has provided entertainment through the ages.  Faster is better.  Fastest is best.  I’ve seen horses, dogs, and camels rush to the finish line and sailboats and canoes hustle to be first.  Even plastic toy ducks can dawdle on down to raise money for our local Boys and Girls Club.  I just never considered tugboats as racing instruments – a seeming oxymoron- until visiting Olympia, Washington during its 41st Annual Harbor Day Festival.

“Think about it,” 5th generation Olympian Ralph Blankenship explained.  “Large sailboats needed small tugboats to bring them into port.  And before easy communication, the first tugboat out would get the job.  They had to be fast and powerful.”  In this case, fast is relative.   Blankenship agreed the idea of a tugboat race was a seeming contradiction in terms but has loved watching the laid back pursuits that often top out at 11 knots or 12.5 mph.  Fortunately, there are three motor size categories in the race to protect smaller tugs from larger ones. 

Skip Suttmeir, owner of Galene with his wife, Marty
The racing tugboats gather at Olympia’s harbor, where Puget Sound ends under the shadow of Washington’s capitol building.  During  festival week-end, the public can explore the boats, most of which have been working for years or are retired.  One of the oldest and the largest was the Galene, one of 61 boats built by the U.S. Army in 1943 to accompany battleships across the ocean.  Only four remain operational.  Owners Skip and Marty Suttmeir, found the Galene for sale on Craig’s list in 2007, restored it and now live comfortably on it for several months of the year on Seattle’s Lake Union.  

In the over 400 HP category, the Galene came in first, winning by a mere 45 seconds over second place Shannon , owned by Captain Cindy Stahl.  The Shannon is a working tugboat, guiding pulp barges to Canada.  Built in 1957 and refurbished in 1977,  the boat changed ownership four years ago.   Captain Stahl’s    trips take approximately 19 hours to arrive in Canada, making the complete journey a three day adventure.  As a consolation prize, the Shannon did receive the “Spiffy” award for  being the neatest and classiest boat in the race.
Tugboat owners enjoying a tailboat party

Owners of the tugs were available to chat with visitors while their family and friends relaxed at the stern or rear of the boats, creating a kind of “tailboat” party atmosphere.  Large umbrellas shaded the gatherings with ice chests readily available.  Old captain friends caught up with each other. One congratulated a younger captain on his appointment to oversee the Seattle Port tugboats.  He would supervise steel tugs with the needed 2000 HP to guide modern cargo ships.




Steering wheel of the Sandman
Moored permanently at Olympia’s harbor is the Sandman, a 100+ year old tugboat that has been restored and can be explored anytime.  Some of the original wood remains as does its massive steering wheel.  With a 110 HP motor, the Sandman would have accompanied barges of sand and gravel, brought in to use in construction of many of Olympia’s buildings. 

And in case you got carried away with tugboat fever, the 1967 Mary Anne was for sale.  Others could find a selection on Craig’s list.   One owner strongly urged bargaining as he was able to pay $20,000 for a boat originally listed for $80,000. 
Since the debut of the first tugboat in 1802, progress in building has led to stronger, more powerful boats.  As recently as 2008, the first hybrid tugboat was built.  Only two or three tugs are now needed to maneuver even the largest of ships.  They are a far cry from those used to great moral purpose in children’s books such as “Little Toot” or “Scruffy the Tugboat” who discovered there’s no place like home after exploring rivers and lakes. 





The Harbor Festival also included a large assortment of artist booths, many with nautical themes.  Live music entertained all.  And fresh salmon smoked over an open fire was available for purchase.  We knew we were in the Northwest.  Each town wants a unique and appropriate festival.  Olympia found one with their tugboats – our unsung heroes of the waters that slowly and steadily cross the finish line.

Monday, August 25, 2014

On The Road in Patagonia - 125 Years Later


Approach to Torres del Paine


In 1879, Lady Florence Dixie chose to travel by boat from England to explore Patagonia,  land of the Giants.  In responding to those who thought her crazy to journey to such an outlandish place so far away, she wrote that was precisely why she chose it.  Writing in her memoir, “Across Patagonia” Lady Dixie explained, “Palled for the moment with civilization and its surroundings, I wanted to escape somewhere, where I might be as far removed from them as possible.”  She recognized other countries may be “more favoured by Nature but nowhere else are you so completely alone.”

Upon arrival in the outpost of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the South American Continent, Lady Dixie, her brothers, husband and friend bought horses, food and guides as they set out for their six month journey.  Her first impression of the Pampas was disappointing – desolate, successions of bare plateaus, not a tree or shrub visible anywhere – like a landscape of some other planet.  And, the wind, oh, the “boisterous wind – the standing drawback to the otherwise agreeable climate of Patagonia.”
Two Guanacos in Patagonia

But Nature had much to offer Lady Dixie - herds of 5,000 guanacos (small members of the llama family), groups of 100 rheas or small ostriches, wild foxes, and pumas.  And, as they approached the majestic Cordilleros mountain range, geese, duck, swans, and flamingos appeared near the lakes. Wildlife was not just for viewing as they were all hunted for food with help from the dogs.   Califate berry bushes and wild cranberries provided some variety in the diet.   And the ibis made a great broth. 

They passed an Argentine gaucho, native tribes traveling and traders with their wares.  Never sure whether those approaching were friend or foe, Lady Dixie’s entourage kept guns handy.  Finally, they entered the mountains from the barren plains.  Despite the “almost painful silence”, Lady Florence knew her view of Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine) with the snow covered mountains and glaciers was not yet shared by any other woman of her world.  Penciled sketches brought back her majestic views to England to prove her discovery and to entice others to visit. 

One hundred and twenty-five years later, I followed much of Lady Dixie’s path but in significantly more comfort.   Also starting in Punta Arenas, we traveled north by bus the first day, crossing the same Pampas, enduring equally strong wind, and awaiting the same snow covered mountains to gradually appear out of the haze.  

While the numbers of wild life were greatly reduced, we easily found guanacos and rheas as well as geese and ducks.  Sheep and cows were now numerous mixed with wild horses.  The modern world shone bright with an oil refinery and wind turbines. Plastic bags were caught in the brush like modern day tumbleweeds.   We stopped three times to pick up passengers waiting on the side of the road and at a bus station on an air force base.  And as we neared the mountains, beautiful estancias, tucked in ravines, provided green relief.      

Rheas in Patagonia
In a van on the second day of traveling, even fewer cars were on the road.  A sign warned “Watch for Flying Sand”, a rather obvious danger, I thought.  While stopped to observe our first eagle, we heard nearby Cara Cara birds squawking loudly and for good reason.  Three grey foxes were stealing their babies.  More guanacos passed by, easily jumping the fences.   And rheas seemed more numerous, possibly thanks to their being protected by law. 

In a mere 1 ½ days, we arrived at the foot of the mountain leading to the three towers of Torres del Paine, Lady Dixie’s ultimate site and one she described as “Cleopatra’s Needles”.   Our trails were more worn, filled now with visitors from around the world and we slept in beds rather than tents.  But we did share the building or contribution to rock cairns found along the trails while Lady Dixie alone carved her name in a yet unfound tree. 


Modern Day Gauchos in Patagonia
Lady Dixie is well known in the Patagonia area today.  A hotel in Puerta Natales is named in her honor and guides nod in recognition when you mention her name.  It was a relief to find the landscape intact and the wildlife visible – just as she wrote.  What hadn’t changed in those years was the vastness of the mountains, abundance of glaciers and waterfalls, stratified soil colors, scattered rain clouds, streams of clear water, and blue glacier lakes – all a geologist’s dream and a traveler’s thrill.  

Lady Dixie dedicated her amazing journal to His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, the  Prince of Wales.  I think I’ll dedicate this column to Lady Florence herself  – another adventuresome spirit of a different era.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Denison, Texas – From a President’s Home to a Pirate Ship With Art In Between






Dwight D. Eisenhower's Birthplace
Room where Eisenhower was born
Denison, Texas began as a company town built by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (called the KATY), the first railroad into Texas.  At its height, half of Denison worked for the KATY, including David Eisenhower from 1889-1892.  In a small white clapboard house across the road from a railroad tract, the family’s third son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born in 1890.  President Eisenhower’s birth details may have been lost since all births were at home and Denison had no hospital.  As late as his application to West Point, Dwight thought he was born in Tyler.  However, Principal Jennie Jackson remembered the Eisenhower family and contacted him when he became famous.  

Statue of Eisenhower by Robert Dean
Then General Eisenhower visited his birthplace in 1948, just after the home was purchased by Denison to be preserved.  It is now a State Historic Site that offers a short tour of the house (he only lived there 18 months). A bronze life size statue of General Eisenhower stands on the grounds with him dressed in his personally designed short Eisenhower jacket.  Oklahoma artist Robert Dean created five statues of the president and Denison was lucky to get one of them. The statue was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Eisenhower Birthplace

Denison’s downtown is surprisingly long and large with the train station anchoring the east side.  This is the third station on the site and includes a wedding venue in the former waiting room and a railroad museum.  There we learned Union Pacific bought the KATY railroad and still runs freight trains through the town.  However, the railroad yard now lies west of town and is a busy place. 


Kaboodles Store in Denison
A surprising number of art galleries and antique stores line Main Street with a proposed Studebaker Museum in the works.  My favorite store was Kaboodles, opened two years ago by Cindy Dickson.  The store includes creative and unique repurposed items by local artists and even carries leather purses made by Brad Berrentine, a resident of Pattonville.  Kaboodles Facebook Page


After lunch at CafĂ© Java’s (also known as CJ’s), we walked past the old Rialto theatre.  As we peered through the glass doors, new owner Rich Vann waved us in. He has replaced the sound system, brought in a large screen, and is ready for nightly live shows, movies, or even football games.  His opening event on August 23rd is a Stevie Wonder impersonator.  “We aren’t promising anything.  We’re just going to do it,” he tells us.  All those living in the downtown lofts are going to appreciate this venue. Rialto Facebook Page

Swimming Beach at Eisenhower State Park
Continuing to capitalize on the brief Eisenhower connection, the city boasts of nearby Eisenhower State Park on Lake Texoma.  This is a large park with many camping spots, screened in cabins and some serious marinas, including the Eisenhower Yacht Club.  An employee acknowledged there is no club nor club house and the name is just a fancy way to describe the marina.  Pontoon boats are available for hire and we particularly liked the small swimming beach.  We were sorry not to have brought swim suits to enjoy the clear, cool waters. 
Eisenhower State Park

Compass Rose
Further around the lake we found the Compass Rose – an exact replica of a wooden, tall sailing, brigantine privateer boat from the 1860s.   It was undergoing repairs as we approached.  A young man introduced himself as Mark Nagel.  “I’m the quartermaster,” he said.  Captain Ron Odom soon approached and shared the history of his boat.  She was built in 1968, has traveled around the world twice and is one of only 145 remaining privateers in the world, few of which are still sailing.  Since their purchase, Captain Ron and his wife, Tamie, have refigured the sails into a square rig which allows the boat to turn in any direction, picking up the wind on the lake.  They’ve replaced just about everything, furnished it with period pieces and covered the hull with fiber glass to protect it from growth in the lake.   

This nautical life is especially surprising for Ron who lived 52 years on a cattle ranch in West Texas.  After spending summers sailing in the Caribbean and owning a series of Hunter boats, Ron and Tamie are finally living their dream.   The Odoms have made the ship available for tours (1st and 3rd Saturdays) and sails.  All of the crew work as volunteers except a required 100 ton captain.  Passengers are treated to pirates in authentic costumes, complete with an ex-marine who climbs the mast and rigging.    Check their website for sailing times, including their full moon events.  
Compass Rose Website


Denison has an eclectic assortment of history, art, recreation, and entertainment for visitors – certainly enough to fill a day or weekend.  Since it’s just an hour down the road, more in Paris should take advantage – unless pirates make you nervous.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Comparing International Airline Personalities



Quantas Airlines approaching Auckland, New Zealand
The travel day had already been long - early morning wake-up call, two hour drive to the airport, parking, check-in, security review, first flight out, lost in a new airport, and now, finally, the second and last flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca.  American Airlines brought us to Mexico City and bankrupt Mexicana was to carry us to our destination.  I walked into its clean, new airplane and immediately relaxed as classical music played overhead and wondered why other airlines didn=t use Mozart to calm passengers.  But then all international airlines have their own personalities.

Fly any of the Asian Airlines and the attendants will take you back in time when Astewardesses@ had to be of a certain height, weight, age, and appearance.  At Los Angeles Airport, I watched a crew of Singapore Airline attendants pass - bright smiles, hair drawn up, hats precisely tilted, and dressed in tight skirts, draped scarves, belted waists, and high heels.  All heads turned to watch this perfectly coiffed cast pass effortlessly through security.  I wanted to be on their flight.

On a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, lovely attendants treated our general class cabin as if we were in first class.  The array of food choices was staggering – American, Asian, Indian, vegetarian, egg free, dairy free, kosher.  Soft voices whispered in my ear to determine if I were awake enough to want a snack or breakfast.  Warm damp towels freshened my face.  And bathrooms were kept spotless throughout the long flight. 

My experience with Egypt Airlines from New York to Cairo was in sharp contrast to the Asian ones.  Only male attendants dressed in blue and gold suits served us, and men being men, the bathrooms needed far more attention from the staff than they got. No alcohol was allowed because of its prohibition in Islam. That didn=t stop the loud visiting among passengers. Egyptians are, in general, a happy bunch and even some of the attendants joined in the bantering that crossed rows and aisles. I sat next to a couple who, judging by their tete-a-tete murmurings, were newly married.  They weren’t and acknowledged just enjoying time together before meeting their large family in Cairo. The husband wanted to know where my husband was.  

Alitalia Airlines has been in and out of bankruptcy for years, with a lousy on time record. On a trip to Italy and Tunisia though, it had the best schedule and prices.  The airline makes up for their often late arrivals with an open bar at the back of the plane – literally open bottles of wine that passengers pour themselves.  That made the rear of our plane the place to solve world problems which several travelers tried to do all night.   Turkish Airlines was all business but its low cost competitor, Pegasus, reminded me of the early days of Southwest Airlines, when flight attendants often joked around and gently teased travelers.  Pegasus’ obligatory safety film was made with children giving instructions – so amusing that everyone actually watched.

I had long been intrigued by El Al, Israel’s closely guarded airline, and finally got to try their services en route to Tel Aviv.  At Newark Airport, each passenger was separately interrogated.  My questions included where I was staying, who I was visiting, name of my landlady, had I ever been to the Middle East, why are you going to Israel, to Jordan?  On board, Hebrew dominated and passengers included bearded rabbis, large Hasidem families, a teenage girl in braces who bobbed her head in prayer through the night, and a handsome, teasing flight attendant.  Humus was standard as was the wonderful Middle Eastern breakfast salad with seeds and nuts.

Sky Airlines lunch on flight to Puerto Montt
In using international airlines, it’s been a surprise to be served meals and local products, even on short flights.  On an hour and a half flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, we were given a hot lunch on Vietnam Airlines.  An even shorter flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Chile was enough to be offered cold cuts on Sky Airways, a start-up Chilean airline. On a 50 minute puddle jumper with Tunisair from Tunis, Tunisia, to Palermo, Italy, a sole attendant was able to distribute sweet snacks and hard candy. With its mostly male attendants, Quantas Airlines made available Australian wine and beer as well as Australian movies such as “There’s nothing I’d rather be than an Aborigine.” Swiss Air served the best milk chocolate candy ever and Dutch KLM promoted its dairy products, including Gouda and Edom cheese. 


In these days of tedious air travel, concentrating on the novelties of an airline helps pass the time.  The differences are there, just waiting to be noticed. And for those who prefer a taste of home, Coca Cola is always available – always.

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